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Law Professor: Police Hold 'Extraordinary' Power Over Black People In Traffic Stops

Georgetown Law School professor Paul Butler testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on policing practices and law enforcement accountability in June 2020. In an NPR interview, Butler says police in Brooklyn Center, Minn., didn't need to pursue Daunte Wright over an outstanding warrant.
Georgetown Law School professor Paul Butler testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on policing practices and law enforcement accountability in June 2020. In an NPR interview, Butler says police in Brooklyn Center, Minn., didn't need to pursue Daunte Wright over an outstanding warrant.

A law professor and former federal prosecutor argues that police in Brooklyn Center, Minn., didn't need to pursue Daunte Wright, who was killed by an officer who said she mistakenly shot him instead of using her Taser.

"They have his license plate. They know where he lives," says Georgetown law professor Paul Butler, author of the book Chokehold: Policing Black Men.

Police have said Wright was pulled over for an expired registration on his car. They then attempted to arrest him for an outstanding warrant related to misdemeanor charges.

"There are millions and millions of outstanding warrants in the United States," Butler says in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition. "And every day police show up at people's homes and arrest them for those outstanding warrants. That procedure could have been followed with Mr. Wright, especially because even the warrant that was outstanding wasn't for a crime of the century. It was for two misdemeanors."

Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the Wright family, said in a separate interview earlier this week that Daunte Wright "was doing, like most marginalized minorities, trying to run away and get away from the police because Black men in particular are afraid when the police interacts with them because it normally ends up in bad results."

Butler, who is Black, says he too is constantly afraid of being confronted by police.

"Any Black person who is aware of the news, who knows history, has to be anxious around the police," Butler says. "I'm older. I'm a professional. I'm law-abiding. Whenever I see a cop car behind me, my heart starts beating faster. I don't go to places late at night where I'd have to drive and be on a lonely road where I might be pulled over. I don't want to take the risk."

He argues, "if you don't immediately stop ... in addition to whatever traffic infraction, you're committing contempt of cop. And bad officers will make you pay for that. ... It's so arbitrary and so that police officers who are racist or biased, they have so much power."

Butler says he has a police officer come talk to his law students "about what it's like to be a cop in D.C." To demonstrate how much power the officer has, Butler says, the officer "plays a game with the students where he invites them to come on a ride-along, sit in the back seat of his car for a night."

The game is called Pick That Car.

"He tells the students, pick any car you want on the street and I'll stop it," Butler says. "He's a good cop. He waits until he finds a legal reason, but he says that he can follow any car for four or five minutes and he'll find a reason.

"There's so many traffic infractions that any time you drive, you commit one. And that gives police an extraordinary amount of power, and we know that they selectively use this power against Black and brown people," Butler says.

So what's the answer to the excessive power Butler says police have, especially in traffic stops?

"I'm a lawyer, so in some sense, I believe in reform," Butler says. "And I'm an educator, so I believe in the power of learning and knowledge. So there are things that can be done.

"One simple fix is that when people commit traffic infractions, the best responders aren't people with guns, because now we see that too often," he says. "When people with guns are required to respond to minor petty offenses, the consequences can be tragic."

Avery Keatley, Milton Guevara and Catherine Whelan produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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